This review commemorates Richard Baxter’s 400th birthday (11/12/1615).
Richard Baxter pastored the parish of Kidderminster — a community of 800 families — with whom he carefully and intentionally conferenced over the course of a year. By conference, Baxter met with eight families each day, Monday and Tuesday, to discuss catechism, assess their spiritual condition, and answer any questions of conscience these families might have. From reading the Reformed Pastor, one might presume that, though these meetings were fairly structured, they were anything but droll. Rather, they were intense discussions on what Baxter considered to be the most urgent affair, true conversion.
Baxter’s model for private conferencing of families spread throughout England, and, in due time, the Worcestershire Association requested Baxter to preach on this matter of conferencing (13). Unfortunately, Baxter fell sick; unable to attend to the preaching of this subject, he published his exposition of Acts 20:28 as Gildas Salvianus, the title of which presently we refer to as The Reformed Pastor. The Reformed Pastor, as an exposition of biblical text in Puritan style, is a 250 page work. This work exposits a single verse, Acts 20:28, in the following fashion.
The first chapter looks at the oversight of the pastor’s soul in two sections: the first covering the nature of how a pastor exercises oversight of his soul and the second developing the motives by which the pastor exercises personal oversight. A pastor must first ascertain his spiritual condition. Is he truly converted? Is he in a state of grace? If so, then why might he be so asleep to the task of the conversion of lost souls? His opening sentence is a striking warning: “See that the work of saving grace be thoroughly wrought in your own souls” (53). Baxter challenges pastors to let actions match doctrine and to be sure not to preach hypocrisy. He argues, “Oh how curiously have I heard some men preach; and how carelessly have I seen them live!” (64).
The second section of chapter one — on a pastor’s motive for self-oversight — reminds the pastor that he is just as in danger of hell as his Sunday morning listener’s. He, too, is depraved and tempted; he is watched by sinners and his parish. And, as a leader, his sin will have great effect on others’ souls, while his diligence will lead to greater success for heaven.
Chapter two presents the proposition that a pastor must in due diligence exercise oversight of his flock. This effort is not simply in preaching from the pulpit, administering sacraments, and visiting the sick, but it must also necessarily include personal engagement with each member of the parish from young to old. Chapter two is made up of three sections: the nature, manner, and motive for oversight. Readers discover that the nature and motive of this kind of oversight is fairly consistent with that of chapter one.
The nature of a pastor’s oversight of a parish makes conversion of souls primary. For those who have security of salvation, the pastor must help them through matters of conscience. This means that pastors must be well studied and must encourage the study of his congregation. The pastor must look to the needs of families, the sick, and direct the impenitent towards penance by faithfully administering church discipline.
A pastor must practice oversight, not for personal gain and worldly comfort, but out of a desire to glorify God and further his kingdom. This task must be done with fervency, earnestness, and diligence; a pastor must have a tender and humble disposition that woos people to his instruction and authority. Very intriguing is also Baxter’s clarion call for pastors to unite and work towards oversight through the wider effort of ecumenism.
Baxter closes chapter two with careful exegesis of Acts 20:28, and advances the motive for congregational oversight by appealing to the office of overseer, the person of the Holy Spirit, the Church God founded, and the blood of Christ, which purchased that Church.
The third chapter goes on to an application section, which describes, through practical instruction, how oversight should take place. To begin with, oversight should take place with humility. Baxter laments, “What pains do we take to humble them, while we ourselves are unhumbled!” (133). Furthermore, according to Baxter, this loftier expectation on private conferencing should be accomplished by the method of personal catechizing and instruction. The pastor willing to take on this high calling should expect that this work will come with benefits and difficulties, but it is a necessary work. One source of these difficulties arises from objections of members within the parish. Nonetheless, a pastor should give diligent direction to his people through both his personal model, resourcing the people, and with Christian character. He must do so by evaluating his people’s understanding of Christian doctrines, sensing their earnestness about eternal matters, and helping them understand their miserable state apart from Christ.
The general tone of Baxter’s, The Reformed Pastor, is one of urgency and fervency. Very much unlike some of our reads that have been methodological and rational. Not to say that Baxter’s pedagogy is not rational or ordered; it is very much so — following a distinctly Ramist logic as characteristic of its time. What is refreshing with Baxter is his sincerity; whereas Descartes might be hesitant to publish what he indeed believed to be true but feared might lead to his burning, Baxter would gladly endure the loss of his property, wealth, and freedom for these truths he holds so dear. This, in fact, is precisely what will later happen to Baxter when he is ejected, along with 2000 others, by the Act of Uniformity in 1662 — some six years after this publication.
Baxter sees these matters as life and death, not just for his parish but also for himself. Many assume that the Puritanical mentality is one of judgment and harshness. However, anyone who spends any amount of time with the Puritans discovers that the greatest indictment a Puritan preacher gives is first upon his self; Puritans practiced the commended discipline of preaching to self (55, 61). Two such clearly self-effacing examples in this text include the first-person plural used in the section on humility (cf. 133 ff.), and the first-person singular used to close that section (172).
In our present time, many would read this work and say: “Why this is an unrealistic expectation and calling upon a pastor?” No doubt, there was no shortage of listeners in Baxter’s day whom felt likewise. We can write off the present’s sluggishness and slovenliness to the spirit of the age, the product of post-modernity, the excess of what the Puritans would call diversion. No doubt many readers today would discount this text as an uncomfortable blemish pulling them away from countless hours of couch time in front of sports, Netflix, or treasured times of playing cards or board games. But still, Baxter’s admonition stands. Is the value of a soul greater than a game of cards? Should pastors idly stand by like a fireman next to a burning apartment filled with small children? Or should he preach as a dying man to dying men?
 All citations here forward are from: Richard Baxter, The Reformed Pastor (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2001).
 This text is presented here as from the introductory note (51). “Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood” (Acts 20:28).